"Indeed an ideal companion for students to the more standard treaty ‘texts’ and for the general reader with a genuine interest in the unique foundations of bi-cultural relations in Aotearoa New Zealand today.” —Mana Magazine on The Treaty of Waitangi Companion
The Meeting Place: Maori and Pakeha Encounters, 1642-1840by Vincent O'Malley
An account focusing on the encounters between the Maori and Pakeha—or European settlers—and the process of mutual discovery from 1642 to around 1840, this New Zealand history book argues that both groups inhabited a middle ground in which neither could dictate the political, economic, or cultural rules of engagement. By looking at economic, religious,
An account focusing on the encounters between the Maori and Pakeha—or European settlers—and the process of mutual discovery from 1642 to around 1840, this New Zealand history book argues that both groups inhabited a middle ground in which neither could dictate the political, economic, or cultural rules of engagement. By looking at economic, religious, political, and sexual encounters, it offers a strikingly different picture to traditional accounts of imperial Pakeha power over a static, resistant Maori society. With fresh insights, this book examines why mostly beneficial interactions between these two cultures began to merge and the reasons for their subsequent demise after 1840.
- Auckland University Press
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The Meeting Place
Maori and Pakeha Encounters, 1642-1840
By Vincent O'Malley
Auckland University PressCopyright © 2012 Vincent O'Malley
All rights reserved.
In 1642 Maori discovered Europe. It was a fleeting and ultimately unhappy experience, probably dimly remembered (and little understood) for the next 127 years. But with the rediscovery of Europe in 1769 there was no escape. An irreversible relationship between Maori and Pakeha was thereafter locked in, one in which both parties came to define themselves by reference to the other. This is a book about that process of mutual discovery, of contact and encounter — meeting, greeting and seeing — in the period to about 1840. Its focus is on the meeting place of two, quite different, cultures and peoples, and the outcomes of these encounters. First meetings can be awkward, especially if the parties involved have little in common, and are unable to freely communicate with each other. Language obstacles can be overcome quickly enough where there is a will, but the bigger cultural barriers might remain. Customs and practices that came naturally to one group might be regarded as ridiculous or even deeply offensive by the other. Law and lore could clash. What was highly sacred to the first party might be profane in the eyes of the second. A modus operandi would need to be found, but on whose terms, exactly?
Conventional wisdom at one time had it that, after an initial period of resistance, Maori underwent profound religious, political, socio-economic and other changes. They became — to adopt the language of anthropologists — acculturated into Pakeha society. Acculturation was unilateral, a one-way street. That Maori might impact upon or influence Pakeha culture or thinking was virtually inconceivable. Maori were the impediment that had to be removed — through a process of acculturation or assimilation preferably, though physical elimination was also an option under certain circumstances — before New Zealand's destiny as a South Seas Britain could be fulfilled.
It is sometimes said that the study of history attracts those who seek to adopt a self-righteous pose towards their forebears. Our generation knows so much better than its predecessors that things were rarely so simple. And yet, in the period before 1840, few European observers seriously doubted that Maori society had undergone radical and far-reaching changes. The extent and timing of those changes was uneven. Not every meeting place was identical. In the deep south, the local Ngai Tahu population mixed freely with whalers, sealers and traders. A small number of Pakeha were sprinkled across the area north of the Cook Strait region, where further whaling communities were to be found, and towards the top half of the North Island. There, and especially in the Bay of Islands across to Hokianga and north to Whangaroa, contact and encounter had been early and sustained. By the late 1830s nearly half of the estimated 2000 Europeans resident in New Zealand lived north of the Waitemata Harbour, with another third or so occupying the various South Island whaling stations. The remaining sixth was scattered in between. Pakeha were dwarfed by a total Maori population somewhere in the order of 70,000 to 90,000, though this was overwhelmingly concentrated in the North Island. Maori in both the South Island, and those parts of Northland most heavily settled by Europeans, still remained numerically dominant by the late 1830s, but not to the same extent as was the case in other parts of the country. While the nature and extent of contact in the north of New Zealand was hardly typical (and differed from its southern/Murihiku counterpart), it can still be seen as a kind of hothouse of mutual Maori and Pakeha discovery of one another. It is there that local Maori were said by observers to be among the first tribes to embrace European influences and ideas in consequence of their interactions with multiple whalers, traders, missionaries and explorers in the pre-Treaty era.
Those 'observers' were hardly innocent bystanders, however, but directly implicated for the most part in a wide range of interactions with Maori. The problem of one-sided sources is a common one for many historians grappling with aspects of nineteenth-century Maori history, but is especially acute for the earliest period of contact history, given the absence of a written language before the 1820s. Almost all of the key primary sources consulted for this work are therefore European ones. And it is not as if such sources are especially representative even of the Europeans to have visited or resided in New Zealand during this period, having an inherent and obvious bias towards the literate, well-educated and relatively well-heeled, over the poor and illiterate. Not too many escaped Irish convicts or archetypal drunken Kororareka sailors left journals recounting their experiences of Maori society. On the other hand, there is no shortage of material from a missionary perspective — much of it painfully pious, repetitious, seemingly devoid of real insight at times and frequently prone to exaggerate the missionaries' own influence over Maori society.
Despite this imbalance, the missionaries were not without their own literate critics, many of whom proved only too willing to expose the supposed shortcomings of those described as 'godly mechanics' by one historian. The writings of these contemporary detractors provide a healthy antidote to the missionary sources, while sectarian divisions between the missionaries (especially, but not exclusively, between the Protestant and Catholic ones after 1838) further exposed some failings. In other respects, too, there is just enough diversity in the sources to provide a healthy insight into a range of issues. To take one example: while most British sources were rather too coy to go into much detail as to the nature of sexual liaisons with Maori women during this period, the French had no qualms at all.
To some extent, then, such factors can help to mitigate the obvious lack of Maori sources for this period. Yet, having said that, the limitations surrounding a topic such as is explored here need to be acknowledged from the outset. The evidence available to us from the pre-Treaty period is overwhelmingly anecdotal in nature and frequently contradictory or incomplete. Early nineteenth-century Europeans did not share the same concerns as early twenty-first-century historians, and even when the former did comment on such issues they frequently failed to agree on the reality of the situation. Culture is not just (as many anthropologists now agree) a contestable concept, but it is also a highly subjective one in many respects. Different Europeans looked at the same things in nineteenth-century Maori society and sometimes reached directly contrary conclusions. Even with a supposed wealth of empirical data to hand, different scholars today still reach directly contrary conclusions as to what is going on in Maori society.
None of this contention is surprising and nor does it mean that we should defer from reaching findings on various issues. But it does mean that those judgements must to some extent be tentative. This is most obvious when it comes to considering the impact of new ideas. What men and women of another age truly thought and believed is in many ways not a question capable of ever being adequately addressed. Best assessments of such issues must be based on changes to outward behaviour, accompanied by evidence from observers and, in the case of pre-1840 Maori society, a few scraps of direct evidence from Maori themselves.
The North American historian Richard White has noted a further irony in the tendency of modern scholars, faced with such a situation, to assert that the colonisers did not understand indigenous culture and society, even while relying on such figures for their own sources of information on these subjects. This has prompted White to ask:
If scholars assert that colonizers didn't get it, is it the assumption that modern historians somehow know the it that their own sources got wrong? If the colonizers had no valid knowledge of the other and never produced a common world, then how can modern historians, who, in effect, look into the colonizers' eyes and see the Indians reflected there, claim to know much better?
White partly answers his own deliberately provocative question in referring to alternative sources of information available to modern scholars. Those alternative sources might include, for example, the results of archaeological fieldwork, oral history interviews, the ethnographic technique of upstreaming (deducing likely cultural practices of the past by consideration of current ones), along with various other anthropological and historical approaches.
Yet the question remains an important one, especially considering that in order to understand cultural change one also needs to know something of cultural continuity. In New Zealand and elsewhere there has been a pervasive tendency among scholars to refer to pre-contact indigenous society as 'traditional', thus immediately connoting a static world, devoid of history — a world of nothing but continuity. We know enough about Maori society prior to 1769 from archaeological and other sources to dismiss such foolish notions, and yet still the myth persists. This viewpoint, for which functionalist anthropology is at least partly to blame, inevitably helps to exaggerate the effects of change in the early contact period. Even quite small changes could, after all, have large repercussions in a society supposedly ill-equipped to cope with change at all. A simple acknowledgement that indigenous peoples have histories too goes a long way towards making changes which might at one time have seemed revolutionary now seem rather more evolutionary. Maori society was not a house of cards ready to collapse at the first slight shove from a passing European. Like other indigenous cultures, it was far more resilient than that. The much earlier Polynesian migration from the Pacific to a colder climate, and a land stocked with unfamiliar flora and fauna, along with glaciers in place of tropical lagoons, was surely proof enough of the capacity to adapt and thrive in altered circumstances. In many respects the challenges posed by that migration far exceeded anything arising out of the first encounters with Europeans several centuries later.
An emphasis on indigenous resilience in the face of colonisation, and on the encounter situation as a zone of mutual exchange in which new meanings and ideas emerged, is apparent in much current international literature on the subject. That has not always been the case. Acculturation and cultural contacts have long been debated by anthropologists, historians and other scholars, and earlier assumptions regarding these processes have been increasingly challenged over time. As the American historian Francis Jennings observed in the 1970s, even the term 'acculturation' was often used by professional researchers prior to this time 'to mean merely something that happened to natives to make them more like Europeans; thus used, it becomes merely a synonym for "civilizing"'. In this conception, Maori and other indigenous peoples were seen as largely passive recipients of European cultural influence, which either brought about a 'fatal impact' or was the means of transforming and advancing such societies on the evolutionary scale, depending on the particular viewpoint of the author.
As a number of writers have pointed out, such a debate, although on one level firmly focused on the impact of colonisation on indigenous societies (catastrophic versus benign), in fact appropriated the history of these communities as a proxy for a broader argument around the merits of European society at the time of its initial contact with these other worlds. Maori and other indigenous peoples were, in other words, used as pawns in order to demonstrate that early modern Europe was either fundamentally rotten or essentially enlightened. Neither perspective helped to shed much light on the actual nature and extent of cultural contact and change, be it in New Zealand or elsewhere.
A large body of international literature on issues of culture change today views the topic less in terms of the diffusion of European influences and ideas on indigenous cultures than as a two-way process of exchange and dialogue. Acculturation, in short, is no longer seen as simply a fancy word for indigenous peoples learning to become more like their European colonisers, while an alternative strand of thinking which sought to essentialise culture as a largely immutable and inviolable concept has also waned in popularity. Instead, it is taken as a given that both cultures in any contact or encounter situation influenced one another, whether at the merely pragmatic level of modification of one's behaviour designed to facilitate trade, commerce or other outcomes, or at a more profound level, where ideas and outlooks from one group might be absorbed into the cultural framework of the other. Forms of mutual accommodation need to be distinguished from evidence of actual acculturation. What took place on the 'middle ground' of cross-cultural interaction often would not be replicated in solely Maori or Pakeha situations. Scholars today also emphasise the ability of indigenous communities to absorb and adapt foreign influences, realigning these along the way to suit particular cultural priorities. New technologies and ideas might be employed in ways that Europeans would not have initially envisaged, even if these made perfect sense within the cultural framework of the indigenous communities. Maori and other indigenous groups often did not import new goods and concepts so much as appropriate these for their own ends.
Culture, as many writers now agree, is not some kind of impenetrable and unyielding fortress, but rather is itself something that can be created, defined and 'articulated' in the encounter situation. Rather than existing in an abstract paradigm, culture is created in the meeting of peoples, just as Maori and Pakeha were products of the meeting of Aotearoa and Europe. This was perhaps less a process of 'Other-ing', as Edward Said famously argued, than of 'Us-ing'. Maori, for example, became conscious of distinct elements of their own society only through increasing contact with Europe and began to re-evaluate cultural priorities as a consequence, reasserting some customs even more strongly and modifying or abandoning others. Meanwhile, in other situations genuine cultural change gave way to forms of mutual accommodation, as both Maori and Pakeha sought to interact with one another in ways which did not require fundamental sacrifices as the price of participation.
We might call this zone of encounter 'the beach', to adopt the metaphor favoured by Greg Dening, a space that all travellers had to cross in order to construct a new society, even while bringing with them something of their old one. Or we might view it in terms of a place in which distinct cultural constructions were capable of becoming 'entangled', as Nicholas Thomas suggests. Alternatively, we might take our lead from Richard White's seminal history of the Great Lakes region of North America, The Middle Ground. As White explained it:
The middle ground is the place in between: in between cultures, peoples, and in between empires and the nonstate world of villages. It is a place where many of the North American subjects and allies of empire lived. It is the area between the historical foreground of European invasion and occupation and the background of Indian defeat and retreat.
On the middle ground diverse peoples adjust their differences through what amounts to a process of creative, and often expedient, misunderstandings. People try to persuade others who are different from themselves by appealing to what they perceive to be the values and the practices of those they deal with, but from these misunderstandings arise new meanings and through them new practices — the shared meanings and practices of the middle ground.
Contact was not just something that could destroy — it could also, through a process of mutual invention, create. In White's words:
There is, I think, a culturalist disease of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries that amounts to a fascination with purity and otherness to which I intended The Middle Ground to be a partial antidote. The book assumes that people are not necessarily stupid, simple, or parochial; contact situations created not only violence, xenophobia, and, as the warden in Cool Hand Luke put it, a "failure to communicate," but also new cultural formations and new understandings.
Excerpted from The Meeting Place by Vincent O'Malley. Copyright © 2012 Vincent O'Malley. Excerpted by permission of Auckland University Press.
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Meet the Author
Vincent O’Malley is a Pakeha New Zealander, the author of Agents of Autonomy: Maori Committees in the Nineteenth Century, and the coauthor of The Beating Heart: A Political and Socio-Economic History of Te Arawa. He is also the a coeditor of The Treaty of Waitangi Companion: Maori and Pakeha from Tasman to Today.
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